A Case of Protesting Too Much

A lot of finger-pointing is going on amid the bitter disappointments stemming from the US invasion of Iraq. Everyone has a favorite special interest group to blame for the war. Political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, in America at the Crossroads, cites the confederation of intellectuals and public policy entrepreneurs known as neoconservatives. Film-maker George Clooney, in the film Syriana, blames Big Oil. Longtime newspaperman James Mann, in The Rise of the Vulcans: the History of Bush’s War Cabinet, traces it back to Vietnam.

The latest entry is by a couple of political scientists, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, one at Harvard, the other at the University of Chicago. In The Israel Lobby, an essay in the London Review of Books, with a more cumbersome 83-page version available for academic consumption online as a working paper, they say that friends of Israel made it happen. Pressure from lobby was not the only factor behind the US decision to invade Iraq, they write, “but it was a critical element.”

“Clearly it would be wrong to blame the war on ‘Jewish influence,’” they write. “Rather, it was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence, especially that of the neo-conservatives within it.” 

The ensuing ruckus grew all out of proportion when critics attacked Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for publishing the working paper version. For ten days out of eleven in March, The New York Sun ran ever-more incendiary stories, including one in which Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz asserted the authors had culled their evidence from Neo-Nazi hate sites.

What was surprising was the buckle from the Kennedy School (it strengthened its on-line disclaimer and removed its logo from the first page-view).Then Dean David Elwood returned from a trip to Asia and sought to frame the debate in terms of academic freedom.  The logo was removed “to correct errors in the media,” he said.  “It was done to ensure that the focus was where it belonged: on the paper itself, not when was ‘officially’ publishing [it.]” 

“We have fought for the principle of academic freedon and openm debate from day one. We have to trust in the capacity of people to use ideas effectively and thoughtfully,” Ellwood said.

It seems to me that there can be no doubt that there is a powerful Israel lobby in America. If nothing else, Mearsheimer and Walt have demonstrated it conclusively by the reaction their article evoked. Polls routinely cite the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as ranking with the American Association of Retired Persons as the most effective professional lobbying organizations in Washington. In principle, its methods are little different from, say, the farm lobby.

Nor is there any doubt that the Israel Lobby has a powerful ally in the various Christian fundamentalist groups in the United States.  Among the Christian evangelicals that Mears and Walt mention are Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, and politicians Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders of the House of Representatives. These Christian Zionists share the belief that the establishment of Israel in 1948 fulfills a biblical prophecy of the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and is a necessary precondition to the return of Jesus and the Final Days..

But is it really the case, as Mearsheimer and Walt assert, that “the US [has] been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state?” That the Israeli lobby has “unmatched power” and “no serious opponents in the lobbying world?”  That the Brookings Institution, whose senior expert on the Middle East is Martin Indyk, who planned much of the Oslo process, is “just another member of the pro-Israel chorus?: That The New York Times, despite its strenuous attempts over the years to be even-handed, is its patsy? Or that “the situation has no equal in American political history?”  

Suppose you wanted to actually /gauge/ these propositions, measure and test them, and others like them?  There exists, at least in embryonic form, an apparatus for their careful thinking-through. It is described most concisely in a monograph, Special Interest Politics, by Gene Grossman of Princeton University and Elhanan Helpman of Harvard and Tel Aviv Universities — 350 pages of optimization techniques for thinking about electoral competition, influence peddling,  regulation and protection, endorsements, campaign spending, suppression of dissent and the like.

They write, “We are interested in the conditions under which special interest groups (SIGs) can exert influence, and in identifying the determinants of the extent of that influence.  We are also interested in the different tactics that SIGs use, and the reasons for their effectiveness or lack thereof. Finally, we are interested in the outgrowth of competition between special interests — which groups are most likely to prevail when several of them seek conflicting policy objectives.”

What they have in mind is, of course, an analytic framework drawn from economics and political science — an array of mostly game-theoretic models that can be clearly spelled-out and then measured against the real world, much as a set of tools is used to realize a design.  Since the role of SIGs in public decision-making processes first came under the microscope forty years ago (when Mancur Olson broached it in The Logic of Collective Action), special interest politics has become a exciting topic on both the research frontier and in classroom textbooks — first in the analysis of international trade policy, gradually extending to the political economy of nearly everything. Much of the most interesting work is being done in universities in Israel.

But before I get your hopes up about the possibilities of a more dispassionate and convincing analysis of such questions coming from social science, I should mention another interesting controversy that cropped up last week — a symposium at the American Enterprise Institute on the question, “Abortion legalization and Crime Rates — Is There a Relationship?” I watched a webcast.

You know the argument — that legalized abortion in the 1970s significantly contributed to the surprising decrease in crime in America during the 1990s by preventing the birth of unwanted children who might otherwise have grown up to be criminals. Broached first in 2001 by John Donohue of Yale University and Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago in a scholarly journal, then amplified greatly by Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their best-seller Freakonomics, the idea was Roe v. Wade had triggered a huge drop in crime a generation later that none of the experts had been expecting.

As moderator Jonathan Klick of Florida State University noted, Donohue and Levitt thereby managed to irritate both ends of the ideological spectrum — the Right by suggesting that there could be positive effects arising from liberalization of abortion rights, the Left because of the racial implications of the theory. Virtually everyone who had published scholarly research on the topic was invited to the AEI session. The exchanges among the panelists were sometimes sharp. Agreement was elusive. There was none of the progressive narrowing of disagreement that we expect from science.

But in the end, the force of Donohue and Levitt’s argument, if not the precision of their estimate, remained mostly intact, or so it seemed to me. A 1 percent drop in the crime rate per year attributable to unwanted births, or cumulatively about half the 30 percent in the 1990s?  Perhaps a little less; perhaps even a lot less; perhaps a quarter of the decline.. But definitely some. As Donohue says, “Finding out the truth about such complex social matters is never easy.” 

In much the same way, the persuasive qualities of the Mearsheimer/Walt essay rests on its strong intuitive appeal. Israel receives about $3 billion a year in direct foreign aid, they note, or roughly a fifth of the entire foreign aid budget, making it the largest annual recipient since 1976. Most recipients of aid must spend it all in the United States, but Israel is allowed to use 25 percent to fuel its own defense industry.  Israel buys the latest fancy weapons systems denied to other allies. And the US turns a blind eye to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.  Its diplomatic support is no less extensive.      

There is plenty in Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument that is offensive to the ears of a friend to Israel. They airily dismiss shared strategic interests or moral imperatives as a basis for the relationship. They gloss over the long-standing influence of the pro-Arab oil lobby among the oil companies, and of the Saudis in particular. They also overlook the fairly widespread sympathy in the United States for the Palestinians’ claims to a homeland — possessors of one of two good titles to the same piece of land. They gloss over the Bush administration’s commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict, an approach that enjoys wide backing not only in the United States but among Israelis and Palestinians as well.

But about the basic outlines about the Israel Lobby, surely they are correct. It’s not that the Lobby is a unified movement with central leadership, they say. “For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise it are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better,” they write. “By contrast, pro-Arab interest groups, insofar as they exist at all, are weak, which makes the Israel Lobby’s task even easier.” Central to its strategy is controlling the debate — both by portraying Israel in a positive light and penalizing criticism of it.

They conclude, “…[T]he Lobby’s campaign to quash debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy. Silencing skeptics by organizing blacklists and boycotts — or by suggesting that critics are anti-semites — violates the principle of open debate on which democracy depends… Israel’s backers should be free to make their case and challenge those who disagree with them, but efforts to stifle debate by intimidation must be roundly condemned.”  If there’s a ray of hope, they say, it is that the adverse effects of these policies are increasingly difficult to conceal. “Powerful states can maintain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored forever.”

In this respect, at least, I think Mearsheimer and Walt are absolutely correct. When one special-interest group develops great influence at the expense of all others, as sometimes happens in a democracy, the eventual tendency is to discount it — to revalue it or “write it down,” as if it were an over-stated asset.  How this occurs is a mystery — precisely the sort of mystery that can be considerably clarified by formal models — but something like it happened to the vaunted China Lobby in the 1950s — a powerful coalition of anti-communist interests in the United States that rallied around Chiang Kai-shek after he was forced by the communist victory in mainland China to retreat with his forces in 1947 to the island of Formosa, which he renamed Taiwan.

Specifically, the China Lobby referred to a number of well-funded organizations acting on behalf of Chiang’s government. Its allies included a wide array of business, political and military interests, who participated with varying degrees of involvement. Some of the more recognizable names include Time magazine publisher Henry Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce; newspaper columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop; President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen, director of Central Intelligence; Senators Richard Nixon and William Knowland and US Rep Walter Judd; and Gen Douglas MacArthur and assorted other senior military figures.

The influence of the China Lobby was at its zenith during the Korean War and immediately afterwards. The United States in 1954 pledged to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion.  The next year, Communist Chinese assaults on the in-shore islands of Quemoy and Matsu brought the US to the brink of using nuclear weapons on Taiwan’s behalf, amidst cries to “unleash Chiang Kai-shek.”  But at some point, the fever broke. The People’s Republic backed off. Washington quietly renegotiated the terms opf the alliance. The United States never abandoned Taiwan. And though their relations are never simple and sometimes tense, the “two Chinas” have lived in peace and rapidly growing prosperity for half a century.

It would be easy to overstate the similarities here.  Israel is not Taiwan. The Jews are not the Chinese. But the story of the China Lobby is a useful reminder. Among special interest groups seeking influence, competition is as powerful a solvent as in more familiar markets.